Originally published on May 22, 2003
My apologies Mr. Westling,
Without a doubt, I did not intend to tarry so long in replying to your previous dispatch, but life and its shadowboxers are busy as usual gesticulating with grunt and grin, keeping me bearing loads of some particular consequence in other less consoling quarters, but I did very much wish to reply with familiar timber. As to the "noisy self-interest" comment and its covering a lot of ground, of course, of course, and THAT was the point. Five or six people struggling each at various stages of life dotted across the four corners of the global landscape while slumped over the almighty questions of what exactly to do and precisely when to do it, ended as one might expect, everyone busying himself with his own perceived notions and chores in his own perceived neck of the woods to the detriment of the so-called group effort. No great mystery existed for our minds to pursue absent a personal agenda, absolutely nothing to reveal except that path each of us were already pursuing. To that end we just sort of drifted away from each other tethered to our own concerns, pretty much the result I predicted at the beginning of the "not really so great" experiment.
For or against Stalin. Three years earlier Breton's Surrealists experienced a similar debacle. There was no bridging the gap between the poet's investigation into experience and the Party's requirements of practical administration. But it arguably brought to light an irreducible toggle at the very core of the revolutionary project: does the collective or the individual have the ultimate say in charting direction of the revolution? The Surrealists never satisfactorily resolved this problem, and even as late as 1952, Breton indicated that his answer to the question "does the revolution require that social liberation must occur before individual liberation can?" was yes. I don't believe he really thought out all the possible implications that attend to this issue. If social liberation is primary, doesn't it follow that individuals are reduced to an instrumental role? This question goes to the core of the entire Marxist project.
Precisely! Just as a water molecule requires both hydrogen and oxygen atoms, each in obedience to its own individual composition and inertia, the social fabric of humanity cannot exist without freedom first gaining a foothold at the individual level. And yet, the masses great and small tend to follow leaders, whether these leaders are self-appointed messiahs, statesmen or revolutionaries, crowd-anointed stars of the hour, or bad boys (girls, too!) on parade and each grand movement is the articulation of a few wide open mouths apotheosized by the herd despite all intellectual cajoling that is to set men free to the contrary , because, whether this phenonmenon is a matter of personal nature or of social oppression, not all humans are capable much less inspired by an uncompromised divine light strong enough and focused enough to shake loose of the fetters and act as a catalyst for change. As such there will always be leaders and there will always be followers. Hence institutions and molecular compounds, mighty poets, shining lights, and safety in numbers.
My reference to your manifesto being "a little too sweeping" should be explained, I suppose. What I meant was that to assert that nothing of note has happened since the, what? The 1947 International Surrealist Exhibition perhaps? Was going a bit too far. Personally, I find some of [Roberto] Matta's 1960's works a real extension of the Surrealist outlook. Even Pop has a role in furthering our ideas of personal liberation. Of course, I look at the best of Pop as being heavily laced with irony, so that it can be read as a critique of commodity capitalism. I agree with you the balkanization is something we need to transcend.
But there is no escape from this monstrosity we know as time; time changes all perspectives, hence truth is always in travail. At least none less worthy of our concerns in our current apocalyptic node. We are soldiers called into a life of combat. Each soldier is armed according to whims of the moment. While it is certainly too late to write poems, it is far too early to burn books and paper money on the trash heap of our own impatient imaginations. Socialism will supplant capitalism, but not tomorrow, or the next day. There is much yet to be done in the name of competitive fetishism. Do I have proof of this? Does it matter except along the broad avenues and speculative pitter patter of the chattering classes?
I too am an autodidact, to a large degree. I do have 24 semester hours' credit from Roosevelt University in Chicago dating from 1972-74. My first great epiphany came at attending the Marcel Duchamp retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago in March 1974. His work and life showed me that formal education provided more obstacles than opportunities. I find academia to be one of the principal obstacles to both individual and social transformation. My second great epiphany came from understanding the intimate connection between [Rene] Duchamp and Max Stirner in 1989. My course has been set ever since. The bulk of the fruits of my interest in this connection is forthcoming, but it won't be too long now.
Having run willy nilly through all those blackened doors and those well-read windows, what have I gained that will put starch in my speech? Am I not the same dissatisfied sojourner that I was at 8, 14, 18, 22, refusing to memorize the lives and works of others so that I can exercise more freely the haunts withering within myself, only to be mocked as an unschooled ignoramus and a wasteling, no talent fool? What is it that we are really seeking, you and I? Should I yawn or squeeze a peach into my fist? Freedom? Like Pilate, I ask, what is freedom? What is truth? Is the only damned truth I can ever know for certain (because it has been with me the longest) is that every day of every year of my freelanced life has been augured by the truth and the lie shaped like a bonzai tree that encourages me to lose my ephemeral status, my skin, my gender, my race, my stinking unresolved life for the sake of OTHERS and their own unresolved notions? What do I care about others? Do they care about me? What is this truth I prefer to think as the ONLY TRUTH? If my life is nothing but a zen koan, has not my own insignificance been the only path worth noting. Debord was a hard-nosed poseur, just like the multitudes grinning with marmalade teeth, but he indeed invented himself, the poet and raconteur with critical aims. Six billion individuals, or five giant nations under one roof? What are the odds of me inventing either possibility?
You really shouldn't lift whole sections of material from the Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Stirner and present it as your own thought, although you chose a reputable source. George Woodcock, although prone to some of the same collectivist biases as so many other commentators on Stirner, did do a pretty good job at characterizing his thought.
Well lad, I hardly presented that chunk as my own writing. Methinks it twas a dead giveaway...
So I make no excuses. As to Stirner, the following is all I know... Notice the all caps, vital dates in parentheses. I suppose I could have pasted myself into the narrative, or simply given a reference. Or said I knew nothing, and let it go at that. Yawn.
STIRNER, MAX (1806-1856), was the nom de plume of the German individualist philosopher Johann Kaspar Schmidt. Born in Bayreuth, Bavaria, Schmidt had a poor childhood (like myself). His academic career was long and fragmented. I am uneducated, while sponging from the world of books and media like there is no other purpose to life than to have read too much to be of any worldly good.
Et cetera. The point being, those who know anything about the "inimitable" unrequited fashion I shove ink to paper, know that I splatter adverbs, adjectives and lengthy unbounded syntax around the page like wood nymphs in search of an unsoiled Grecian urn, and either praise me, criticize me, or shriek delightfully at the joke, but the word inimitable always sets the pace. It was rather obvious to a seasoned reader of this humble bumbler which particular lines were added for personal affect, about four I think, at the very beginning, and the rest which naturally came from a source written in short brittle academic sentences complete with caps and parentheticals for the pure joy of letting a new sparring partner know that those few paragraphs were indeed ALL I knew of Stirner, line for line, having pulled the historical man distorted or not straight out a book that very morning, scanned, OCR'd, dutifully copied and then routinely pasted into context, prompted of course by your own well-appreciated overtures to him. Apologies that I didn't properly reference the jag for you, but I simply didn't realize I was submitting a white paper unto the authorities. Duly noted is your kind exception to my frightful oversight. See Debord, for more insights into plagiarism, although I really wasn't erecting any such scam.
I guess you're already surmising that I vehemently disagree with your characterization of Stirner as "yet another status quo philosopher". Your evaluation sound a lot like Karl Marx's ideas on the subject, and I am painfully aware that the situationists used Marx as their basic philosophical substrate. Do you know a book that came out in 2002 by Kristin Ross called "May '68 and its Afterlives"? She, too, decries the "creeping individualism" that has seeped into the discourse on May '68 and related phenomena. But that is material for another post.
Status quo in my book projects an entirely other meaning than the one I presume you to harbor. To me status quo is extended to mean that all life is in flux, and since we have always had shining beacons, artists, poets, philosophers, statesmen, soldiers, con men, whores, zealots, saints, sinners, and the rest of us catawauling among the tall timbers, grassy knolls and dry desert sands. To announce that the individual is the primary thrust of existence is hardly breakthrough revolutionary cant, but it is Stirner's rejection of revolution, even as his distrust in institutions is genuine, that interests me, and I thank you for bringing him to my attention, if for nothing more than hereditary concerns.
The thing that is important now is to indicate just why Stirner is not just another apologist for the small-time shopkeeper. The key point has to do with the irreducible toggle in the individualism/collectivism question: can I keep my own prerogatives intact if I allow a collective entity to be primary in my own mind and, by extension, in the world? The answer, I'm afraid, is no, and if this is true, then my own instrumentalism at the hand of the collectivity is inevitable. This engenders what Stanley Milgram (yes, that Milgram) calls the "agentic state", in which I sign away my right of decision in favor of one "in authority". I presume you are aware of the infamous Milgram experiments of 1960. One look at the results of these experiments should be enough to convince that ours is not a world in which "enlightened" egoism rules, only the debased kind, the infantile kind. Where vulgar egoism leaves off, Stirner begins. It is possible to trace a trajectory of an increase in "affective individualism" (as the historian Lawrence Stone terms it), beginning in the late 17th century and continuing up to the present time. Kinship ties have weakened, and individual prerogatives strengthened, in a fairly unbroken progression ever since this began. One of the main problems, in my opinion, is that this process hasonly gone halfway through its cycle.
Now, THIS is indeed close to the mark! How I have raged raged against the dying of the light when encountering the uncorrected rantings of Ayn Rand and Nietzsche (ditto in spades to leftist scalawags like Marx and his progeny), but yet have been unable to resolve the problem of how to congeal the collective notion, honestly and succinctly, given the range and variations of the specimen. I dare not trust ANY authority, unless I first taste its fruit. But individual tastes change, shift, capsize. As circumstances change, so usually does the hand that feeds them. Bureaucratic strength is corruptible as a result of its authoritarian nature in caricature of individuality redeemed, and thus l'd prefer living on the outside, accepting that isolation, rather than join any movement that coerces me with threats or ill-gotten gains, phoney, inflated, or otherwise. Living in the age of quarrel is no picnic on the high seas, but I think you are indeed traveling the right tracks in pinpointing what ails much of the West, that is the mystery of defining, or uncovering that nexus which balances the rights of the individual with the good of the collective. There has got to be a mathematical proof in this somewhere, but flesh and blood properly inspired is never a game of mathematics where zero and affinity take a stand, and the genetics of sin still rule with transparent and opposing thumbs. The society of the spectacle is no match for the society of dead certainty.
Individual empowerment is what we all need, not a centralized plan of forced income redistribution. This will only result in endless counterrevolution. It is moralism run wild, what confounded the French Revolution and the communist one as well. Collectives that legislate what's good for the others against their consent is no good. Self-directed anarchism could avoid these problems if brutality could be expunged from the consciousness of the millions. That if is so big you can drive a truck through it, I know. But the revolution is impossible without it. Start small, get bigger. Revolution from below. I believe we are not so very far apart philosophically. Breton, as well as Picabia, Max Ernst and Duchamp, all found Stirner to be quite compelling. It is only a question of continuing to resolve all the inconsistencies attending to the implementation of collectively constituted projects that keeps us from moving forward.
Such is the curse of the dreamer. That revolution from below you declare is part and parcel of the status quo for which I stand. But bullets and bombs, poisons and pride, hand in hand, one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind, each a lure of fascination, each a stumbling block. The only philosophy worth a nutcracker's suite is that which can be applied to the world in play. On the brink of catastrophic destruction, our world is not a safe place. Psychological warriors must gird their loins as the mighty clash for the sake of their history books. Words no longer make a difference, they have withered in the mouths of the arms dealers. Flesh on the bone will be burnt to bare cinders and those violent screams and sentimental songs of peace will not be heard in the heavens, but will choke on the smoke of the ancestral homes now in ashes and worse. Gentler minds will continue to seek sanctuary, but will find none, but the ones they were born into like the flesh of the moth. This is the age we live to defy, but few, very few, poets of promise and peace poling along a bloody regime have ever made it out alive, and the next generation often fares worse. But we can't stop dreaming, can we?